Homeless students needed help. Schools showed them the door.

An illustration of a school on a green background
Pennsylvania schools tried to disenroll students who said they were homeless. Some families alleged their children were locked out of school for weeks, even months. (Photo illustration by Janeen Jones / Center for Public Integrity; Getty Images)

This story was published in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity, a newsroom that investigates inequality.

The two boys should have been in elementary school. But for 71 days, the Bristol Borough School District in suburban Philadelphia would not enroll them.

Attorneys for the students later explained they were newcomers. They first lived with a relative in New Jersey but couldn’t stay without risking her Section 8 housing voucher. They next moved into Bristol Borough’s district boundaries, the attorneys said, where the boys shared a single room with their mom in a family friend’s home, without a lease or a legal right to remain.

Twice, their mother visited Bristol Borough offices to enroll. Twice, district staff turned her away: Without proof of age, immunizations and address, they said, the boys could not attend.

On the third try, she named the federal law that guarantees equal educational opportunities to children without stable housing, including those without normally required paperwork. “My boys should be protected under the McKinney-vento act,” she emailed.

The district advised her to enroll elsewhere.

The Bristol Borough case is one of dozens reviewed as part of a Center for Public Integrity investigation that shows the federal law promising to provide homeless children with equal access to education, while ironclad in theory, can prove paper thin in practice.

Public Integrity obtained nearly 1,000 pages of documents, exchanged between 2019 and 2023, that provide a revealing window into a rarely discussed component of the law: the homeless enrollment dispute process. They show families wrestling with Pennsylvania school district personnel over where children have a right to enroll and which services they ought to receive.

Nationwide, there’s little information about how schools settle disagreements over which students qualify for aid. That can include transportation from outside of district boundaries to ensure students have stable schooling even when they lack stable housing.

The Pennsylvania records reveal the tension between the generosity of the education provisions in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act and the constraints on local officials ultimately in charge of implementing a law that comes with minimal funding — and no teeth.

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The law urges public schools to embrace homeless students, regardless of whether they reside within a school district’s boundaries. But when families say they don’t have a permanent home, some school district officials suspect residency fraud.

When those arguments escalated, certain districts doubled down, deploying a private investigator or school police to rebut the families’ version of events. 

Suburban school districts in particular can be quick to interpret the law narrowly and to expend resources investigating whether families who seek help are opportunists or fakers, a review of dispute records and internal emails from the Pennsylvania Department of Education suggests. Many conflicts unfolded in Philadelphia-area schools, which are among the country’s most segregated. On average, the spending gap between wealthy and poor districts in Pennsylvania is among the widest in the nation.

Families caught in several disputes alleged their children were locked out of school for weeks, even months.

“I am appalled!!” one woman wrote to state authorities after she learned her grandson would be disenrolled from Abington School District in suburban Philadelphia. “How does sleeping on someone’s sofa and your children sleeping on air mattresses or paying your last dollar at a hotel, considered stable living conditions. I believe having a permanent address would be stable living conditions.”

A letter from the district argued her grandson experienced “no causal event that caused homelessness” but simply moved out of the district when a lease ended.

In a statement, district spokesperson Allie Artur wrote that Abington is “confident that its professionals comply with applicable laws with respect to homeless students” but declined to comment on specific cases due to privacy laws. 

In the Bristol Borough case, the district argued that the information they received about the family’s living situation led them to believe that the students had stable housing.

Michael Santos, who serves on the board of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, said Public Integrity’s reporting surfaces rarely-discussed problems in how school districts implement McKinney-Vento, signed into law in 1987.    

“You have to basically pull teeth to get these cases,” he said. “It’s not easily available, precisely because it does shine a light on some of the noncompliance issues that may be in violation of federal law.”

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Hidden hardships

What Public Integrity found in Pennsylvania is likely the tip of the iceberg there. 

Federal figures suggest more than 27,000 students experienced homelessness in Pennsylvania during the 2020-2021 school year. The state education department estimates that thousands of them encounter a barrier to their enrollment, attendance, or educational success” each school year, but the agency refused to answer questions about how it defines barriers or calculated that figure. 

Disputes over homeless education services are not unique to Pennsylvania.

Public Integrity obtained summaries of roughly 20 concerns about homeless education that families brought to the attention of Maryland education officials in the 2022-2023 school year. Those records show Maryland students also missed school days, experienced difficulty arranging transportation and faced suspicions of residency fraud.

Across the nation, families filing paperwork to dispute district decisions likely represent the minority of those experiencing barriers at school.

Advocates said they suspect homeless families prioritize urgent needs like earning money over complex administrative appeals. Others may feel ashamed to admit they struggle with housing or fear that self-reporting as homeless could invite unwelcome scrutiny.

Nonetheless, Pennsylvania families can escalate concerns unresolved at the district level to state officials or homeless education specialists known as regional coordinators, who can play a pivotal role in the lives of students seeking McKinney-Vento protections. 

Records show coordinators sometimes urged school districts to enroll students they initially rejected. Other times, they sided with district administrators who deemed kids ineligible.

Documents obtained by Public Integrity describe fewer than 60 disputed cases that reached state officials from 2019 to 2023.

Eric Hagarty, who served as acting secretary of education in Pennsylvania from April 2022 to January 2023, thinks lack of power is the reason relatively few families appeal McKinney-Vento disputes.

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“Students experiencing homelessness don’t have lobbyists and high-paid attorneys who can spend their time trying to work the system,” he said. “And it’s those vulnerable populations that are not best served, even though everyone has the best intentions of serving them.”

Legal aid groups have long argued that the need for their services far outstrips their capacity to provide them. And families who advocate for themselves may not receive consistent treatment from schools. 

Federal homeless education guidance recommends general processes rather than mandating specific steps. Who decides disputes, which evidence to consider and how to compensate families whose rights are violated — all of that is left up to states and schools.  

When the process fails, children pay the cost. 

“Students experiencing homelessness don’t have lobbyists and high-paid attorneys who can spend their time trying to work the system.”

Though federal policy requires schools to keep children enrolled while disputes are considered on appeal, in at least six instances Public Integrity reviewed in Pennsylvania, parents and other concerned adults said children missed days, weeks or even months of classes because districts did not enroll them or arrange transportation to school during periods of housing instability.

In one dispute, a teenager was alleged to have missed about three months of school when the Sharon City School District, where he resided temporarily with an aunt, did not enroll him.

A school principal wrote that he would be “more than willing” to enroll the student once his relatives completed enrollment paperwork — a requirement that McKinney-Vento specifically says cannot be used to keep homeless students out.

A regional coordinator questioned why the district in western Pennsylvania thought a teenager forced to move between relatives’ homes in search of a safe place to live was not covered by the law.

“If this 14 year old who was unstable in his living situation and fleeing an abusive and unsafe home was not an ‘unaccompanied homeless youth’ last spring — who would be?” the regional coordinator, Wendy Kinnear, wrote to the principal.

The Sharon City School District did not answer Public Integrity’s questions about the dispute.

A delayed enrollment is exactly the scenario federal law is seeking to prevent, said Santos, who used to work as a legal aid attorney representing homeless families. 

“The law is very clear: While the dispute resolution is pending, you’re supposed to keep the child enrolled. The whole idea is to provide school stability, so that the student doesn’t lose school days,” Santos said. “So if they’re actually refusing, from the get go, and not telling the families that they have the right to appeal, that’s a problem.”

The district was not alone in doubting if students experienced homelessness. Local educators regularly marshaled district resources to argue students were stably housed.

Public Integrity identified 11 cases in which districts subjected students who claimed they were homeless to residency investigations. District officials tasked school safety officers to make phone calls or pay visits to shared residences, hired a private investigator, filmed daily routines, interviewed temporary hosts or tracked a family using a license plate reader. 

The Cheltenham School District north of Philadelphia hired a private investigator and conducted “comprehensive surveillance (multiple locations, multiple days of the week over the course of different weeks, before school, after school, etc.)” to investigate where one family resided, according to the dispute record. State officials reviewing the case agreed the family lived out of district and was not homeless.

Surveillance often targets students who say they are “doubled up” — that is, sharing a friend’s or relative’s housing for lack of better options.

Those children are deemed homeless under McKinney-Vento, which covers students “sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason.” The law places no time limit on how long a student may be eligible for federal protections. 

Still, disagreements over this definition are the root of many conflicts. Advocates for homeless youth say the law is inclusive, shielding students regardless of their specific situation. But some school districts see room for argument. Is a family still homeless if they are not seeking permanent housing? What if there’s no record of an eviction? Districts peel off families around the edges of the federal definition — and a few squarely covered by the law.

Public Integrity’s reporting relies primarily on public records. We were unable to contact many of the families who disputed homeless education services. We withheld the names of families we could not reach or who did not consent to be interviewed.

Documents show school district personnel also sometimes struggled to contact students’ guardians and then faulted families for the lapsed communications. School staff may not have full understanding of their students’ housing and, even when well-informed, may find that a given situation is not easy to categorize.

Most dispute records either provided some evidence to suggest a student might be experiencing homelessness or revealed too little information to judge the student’s eligibility. 

A handful of disputes reviewed by Public Integrity described disruptions to housing that seemed to fall outside the scope of McKinney-Vento, such as a family who said they sold their home voluntarily rather than due to hardship.

Most districts declined to discuss specific disputes. Regional coordinators, who investigate disputes on appeal, referred questions to state officials when reached for comment. The Pennsylvania Department of Education also would not discuss specific incidents or make Storm Camara, the state’s homeless education coordinator, available for an interview.

Taj Magruder, a spokesperson for the state Department of Education, said in a statement that the agency is “committed to providing equitable and inclusive educational opportunities for students experiencing homelessness” and has “a robust and groundbreaking set of standards and practices that ensure the highest level of quality.” The statement also touted an independent monitoring system and said districts out of compliance with federal law must implement a correction plan by the next school year.

But Hagarty, the agency’s former acting secretary, said the department has limited levers to compel compliance. School systems, he and others interviewed for this story said, exercise local control of education.

Doubled up, shut out

A 2022 Public Integrity investigation added to long-standing evidence that many students who qualify for federal homeless education programs at school likely aren’t receiving those services, in part due to misunderstandings about the definition of homelessness itself.

The analysis estimated that 300,000 students annually may have met the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of homelessness but went uncounted in pre-pandemic school years. Identification is critical because it’s a first step that might have allowed those students to remain in school systems where they no longer had a permanent residence, get tutoring or receive referrals to agencies that provide housing and medical care.

Advocates for homeless youth said confusion about McKinney-Vento eligibility — such as when a student is considered doubled up and when they should be categorized as an unaccompanied homeless youth — are major reasons children slip through the cracks. Available data in Pennsylvania shows that school administrators categorize about two-thirds of homeless students as doubled up.

In western Pennsylvania, the family of a middle school student protested when the district he attended balked at keeping him enrolled after he was forced to relocate following his mother and stepfather’s divorce.

The boy, who has autism, oppositional defiant disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, temporarily moved in with his grandmother in a neighboring school district.

An aunt, Jenny Minchoff, wanted him to remain enrolled in the Greenville Area School District, where he received full-time special education services and had long-standing relationships with staff members.

“Moving into another school district and all of the accompanying changes would be incredibly disruptive to [his] well-being,” Minchoff wrote to the district homeless student liaison in August 2021.

Under the McKinney-Vento Act, the family made the case for him to stay as a doubled-up student. But Greenville staff did not see it that way.

District staff determined he had stable housing and contacted the neighboring school system to begin the enrollment process there. The family didn’t know until the new district called the child’s grandmother, asking her to pick up an enrollment packet, Minchoff said.

With help from an outside education consultant and intervention from a regional coordinator, Minchoff was able to re-enroll her nephew. But, frustrated by the experience, she switched him to an online charter school months later.

In a statement provided to Public Integrity, the Greenville district wrote that staff adhere to McKinney-Vento guidelines, and that “on occasion, this involves consulting our Regional Coordinator for additional guidance and clarification regarding homeless situations.”

“I feel as though they withheld a lot of information,” Minchoff said of the district. “It makes me wonder how many other kids are not getting the treatment that they legally deserve.”

Surveilling students

When families try to explain they are sharing housing temporarily, some district officials react by screening for fraud.

Records show school districts regularly interview guardians about where they are living and require families to submit documentation to prove it. 

Administrators at Southeast Delco, a suburban Philadelphia district in a county crisscrossed by about 20 local school systems, said their concerns about residency fraud are the product of geography. A single multi-building apartment complex may span more than one school system. Brenda Wynder, the district’s superintendent, said families sometimes list a relative’s address on enrollment forms to move a child into their preferred district. 

District staff were adamant that they do not investigate a student’s residency once they say they are experiencing homelessness. But the district requires families to prove where they live and why because it is a “resources issue,” said Jeffrey Ryan, the district’s McKinney-Vento liaison.

“We obviously have district taxpayers who want the district’s funds expended for district students,” Ryan said, “not, in this example, the Philly kid who’s just using the address.”

In addition to hiring private investigators and interviewing parents directly, the Cheltenham School District outside of Philadelphia also contacts parents’ landlords or employers and maintains “a residency information line for members of the community to leave tips regarding possible non-resident students,” Cheltenham spokesperson Kevin Kauffman said in response to an emailed list of questions. 

Cheltenham opened 26 residency investigations in the 2019-2020 school year at a cost of about $2,500, he said. The same year, the district spent $5,000 on homeless education services.

Kauffman said residency investigations are not used to screen students for homelessness. But Public Integrity reviewed records on one case where the district used surveillance techniques on a father who thought he and his children could be eligible for homeless status.

The family had been living with his mother, whose home was in the school district. He said it was a burden for her, and so the family relocated to a girlfriend’s apartment in Philadelphia, where he worried they could not stay indefinitely because of her Section 8 voucher.

The district didn’t want to let the children remain at their schools. Camara, the state coordinator, reviewed the case and agreed with the officials.  

“He wants a better school district for his kids; so do many folk,” Camara wrote in early 2020. The family’s living arrangement, “from what you’ve stated here, is by choice!”

A 2018 WHYY investigation of residency enforcement by suburban Philadelphia districts found evidence that poor children and students of color were most affected. Attorneys with the Pennsylvania-based Education Law Center said that also plays out for families experiencing housing instability: School systems, they contend, selectively target families for residency investigations based on their class and race, especially Black students in mostly white schools, and demand families submit multiple documents to prove where they live.

School districts “are not putting families who own single family dwellings through the same hoops,” said Paige Joki, an attorney with the Education Law Center, which advocates for equal public education. “It’s anti-poor. It’s that you live in a shared dwelling.”

Magruder, the state Department of Education spokesperson, did not answer a question regarding whether Black students in Pennsylvania are more likely to be the subject of residency investigations or challenges to their McKinney-Vento status. Public Integrity was unable to determine whether the state requires school districts to report any demographic data about the residency investigations they conduct. 

When McKinney-Vento ends

Families who initially receive McKinney-Vento services may later find themselves at odds with a school system that previously welcomed them, even if their housing remains tenuous.

Public Integrity reviewed at least seven cases in which districts contended that families who previously received McKinney-Vento now had stable housing, even as the families argued they should be eligible for services.

Meghan O’Connor, a mother of four in suburban Philadelphia, experienced this challenge firsthand. In 2018, she and her family were displaced from their rental in the Colonial School District by an oil accident that ruined virtually all their possessions, she said. 

The O’Connors struggled to find a new place amid rising home prices and a lack of rentals for larger families. They moved in with one relative, then another in an adjacent district.

O’Connor’s two older boys, Colonial students since they were kindergarteners, were deemed eligible for McKinney-Vento and continued attending their schools. Her oldest thrived. Once a shy child, he gained confidence, O’Connor said. She credited his success to devoted teachers and an individualized education program that accommodated his stutter.

But in May 2022, a notice on district letterhead told the family their residence was now considered permanent. It didn’t feel that way to O’Connor: Her husband sleeps on a couch most nights, she said, while she shares a bed with her three youngest children. Only her oldest has his own bedroom, a holdover from before the accident. 

“It’s not a permanent solution at all,” she said.

A statement the district sent to Public Integrity said the decision “had nothing to do with the amount of time they had not lived in the District, but rather that the circumstances no longer met the standard of homelessness under state law.” The statement argued the O’Connor family chose to live with family in order to save money although their previous home was repaired and available to rent.

O’Connor said the landlord did not offer her family the rental after repairs made it livable and there was nowhere else her family could afford to go.

The family appealed the decision, but in August the state sent word that officials agreed that the children were not eligible for McKinney-Vento. O’Connor enrolled her younger son in Catholic school, funding tuition with financial aid from the school and support from relatives. Her oldest now attends school online.

The boys have not transitioned easily. Her oldest son’s teachers tell her he speaks constantly of missing friends in the Colonial school system. She is less familiar with his new individualized education program and worries it might not be as thorough. Her younger son has struggled to catch up to the Catholic school curriculum; he’s switching to the online charter her oldest attends. 

A Colonial School District statement said the school system “strictly adhered to the law.”

“The district understands and is empathetic to the educational challenges homelessness creates,” according to the statement. “While we favor removing as many barriers to education as possible, we must balance this approach with our responsibility to the taxpayers who fund that education.”

‘Being punished for poverty’

The Pennsylvania Department of Education’s 2023 report on the matter estimates that 4,544 students — 17% of all homeless students for whom data was available — experienced “barriers to enrollment, attendance, and/or academic success” in the 2021-2022 school year. 

State officials declined to answer questions about how to interpret the data.

According to a brief methodology, the estimate relies on reports from local, regional or state staff who “worked to resolve a barrier situation,” such as missing immunization records. The document does not cite specific barrier incidents or explain when they are deemed to be resolved. 

But the report does explain that some barriers are “actually rights regarding school enrollment for students experiencing homelessness,” a shortcoming the report said would be addressed “via ongoing professional development, on-call [Local Educational Agency] technical assistance, and annual monitoring visits.”

Other documents reveal the limitations of those methods to reform schools.

The Montour School District in the suburbs of Pittsburgh disenrolled or denied enrollment to an average of 20 students per year because of residency issues, district staff told an independent state monitor evaluating McKinney-Vento compliance in 2023. While turning those families away, the monitor said the district “failed to follow through with nearly every recommendation” from a previous audit. 

The Montour district also did not conduct staff training about the law’s requirements and provided scant evidence that it properly notified families of their right to dispute the rulings, the audit found. 

The monitor wrote that they were “very concerned that there will be little or no follow through to demonstrate program compliance.”

In November 2019, according to a dispute record Public Integrity obtained, a mother wrote a letter pleading with the Montour district to continue enrolling her children. The family shared housing with friends or stayed in hotels when money allowed, she said.

District staff used a license plate reader to identify a property the mother leased in a neighboring school district. The mother said she used the address for mail but didn’t live there.

“My children have had a very rough year, and right now their only sense of security is in Montour,” she wrote.

“Being punished for poverty just does not seem right,” she added.

It’s unclear how the case was resolved. In an email exchange, a regional coordinator said she believed the family was not homeless, but state coordinator Camara suggested an eviction from 2019 made the family McKinney-Vento eligible.

Neither the Montour School District nor the state Department of Education responded to multiple requests for comment about the monitoring report and the dispute incident.

“If the process is so convoluted, most families just give up,” said Santos, now associate director of U.S. policy at RESULTS Educational Fund, a nonpartisan anti-poverty group. “They’re like, ‘We honestly do not have time for this. I’m barely getting by. I have to go to work. I cannot take time off work to actually talk to the school and deal with this.’”

Despite this, records show that students’ guardians seeking McKinney-Vento assistance tried to parse the plain language of the law for themselves, without attorneys or advocates.

A mother explained to the state Department of Education that she withdrew her children from their current school because the family planned to enter a shelter east of Pittsburgh. But when the shelter gave those rooms to someone else, she said, her family was instead left sleeping in the parking lot of a Burlington Coat Factory. The mother enrolled her children in the Gateway School District, but received a form arguing they had “no right to enrollment” due to “lack of any evidence” of residing within its boundaries.

“We are basically being denied enrollment due to not having a physical address and can’t get an address until we get into a shelter or into a section 8 house,” she wrote to the state. “I thought homeless laws and disability laws protected children and made it to where they could continue going to school no matter my situation however I guess that’s not the case.” 

Aaron Smith, a social worker in the Gateway School District, said he sent the family the state’s “Procedural Safeguards Notice of Denial of Enrollment” form because staff wished to clarify whether the children should remain in a previous district. The form said the children could attend Gateway pending a final decision, not that they were disenrolled immediately.

“I don’t like the form either, but it’s just the standard form we’re supposed to use,” said Smith, who recalled that area shelters were at capacity when he started working with the family. “If I got that [form], I’d be upset because it looks kind of legal. It’s kind of threatening and intimidating.”

Smith said the incident had a positive resolution: The children continued attending Gateway, and the family later transferred to a charter school in another district when they found permanent housing.

‘The kids are not the only priority’

In Bristol Borough, where the two boys missed more than 70 days of school, their mother asked a district administrator to reconsider enrolling them. “If the school district does not agree with me you must give me something in writing that says that I have a right to appeal the school’s decision,” she wrote in an email. 

Bristol Borough did not enroll the children. Instead, the small school system overlooking the Delaware River border that divides Pennsylvania from New Jersey sent a uniformed school officer to the address where the parent said her family was living — a move that could threaten a temporary living situation.

What happened next is disputed. An attorney for Bristol Borough wrote that the apartment’s resident at first denied that the newcomers lived with him, then confirmed that they paid him rent. Attorneys with the Education Law Center, which represented the family in a complaint to the state against the district, said the friend in fact confirmed their clients lived with him temporarily due to economic circumstances. They maintained their clients did not have a lease.

What is certain is the outcome. It was not until January 2020, after the boys’ mother enlisted the help of Education Law Center attorneys, that the two children enrolled in Bristol Borough.

The attorneys argued Bristol Borough should provide $21,300 in educational services to each child to compensate for missed school days.

An attorney for the district replied his client was “led … to believe that the children were not homeless” but were leasing a property. Plus, he argued, Bristol Borough did not violate federal law by choosing not to enroll the children because it “cannot be considered to be omniscient about a family’s living situation” and “can only be aware of the information presented to it.”

It is not clear from records shared with Public Integrity whether Bristol Borough ever awarded the children compensatory education services. Asked for comment, the district’s superintendent said he was not a district employee during the dispute and had no knowledge of it. 

Camara, the state’s homeless education coordinator, reviewed the case and concluded that Bristol Borough had already met its obligations under McKinney-Vento. 

In a case summary, Michelle Connor, a regional coordinator, wrote that the district official who initially did not enroll the family “looks out for fraud as much as the well-being of the students.”

“This is not to say she does not care; but she cares equally for both,” she continued. “The kids are not the only priority.”

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